Parent Rights Essay

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The rights of one party confer duties on others. If parents have educational rights, then the state has a duty not to interfere with the exercise of these rights, for example, by requiring one sort of education or forbidding another. The existence of parental rights is widely accepted. The extent of those rights, however, is controversial. At what point does the state’s educational responsibility supersede parents’ rights? The extent of a right depends on how it is justified—on the reason given for someone possessing it. This entry explores reasons commonly given for parents’ educational rights and reviews arguments for state restrictions on them.

Justification Of Parental Rights

Rights protect people’s interests (property rights), their ability to fulfill duties (rights of conscience), and societal interests (freedom of the press). Parents clearly have an interest in children’s upbringing. Loving others means wanting them to flourish. But does parents’ deep interest in their children’s wellbeing justify parental control over not only the quality but also the kind of education the children receive? Does it justify protection of homeschooling or religious education if the child would flourish in public school? One reason it might is people’s interest in living what they see as the good life. Often parents can’t do this unless children live it as well. This may serve the child’s interests, too. Children benefit from strong attachment to their parents, which is enhanced if they share the same way of life.

These arguments are all derived from parents’ interests, and hence might be undercut by a different social arrangement. In a kibbutz-based society, for example, parents would not be as close to their children; other people would share their interest in the children’s well-being, and parental rights would thus be diluted. The interest-based rationale cannot be invoked to defend the nuclear family because it depends on its existence. To avoid this difficulty, parents’ rights advocates turn to a duty-based rationale. The duty to promote children’s well-being confers educational rights. On what grounds, though, can one assert this duty? Biblical arguments are unavailing: in a plural society the devout cannot expect their fellow citizens to share their beliefs.

The nineteenth-century English economist Henry Sidgwick proposed a secular explanation based on the helpless state in which children are born. Being the cause of children’s existence, parents are the cause of their helplessness and hence bear responsibility for providing a remedy. This argument is not undercut by generous social services, nor is it vulnerable to a critique of the nuclear family. Parents bear the same responsibility whether the state assists them or not and would do so even if the nuclear family were obliterated.

State Responsibility

State responsibility for education arises from children’s rights, a societal interest in citizenship, and considerations of equity. All three concerns can be interpreted narrowly or expansively; which view is adopted will determine the extent to which parental rights may legitimately be curtailed.

Most would agree that the state should protect children against abuse and neglect. To that end, the state may regulate private schools and set minimum standards for homeschooled students. Some children’s rights advocates, however, argue that children also have a right to an open future and should choose their own way of life and belief system without family interference. Thus parents may be required to expose children to a variety of beliefs and ways of life. This view has been criticized as biased toward secular liberalism. Critics also question whether one can meaningfully choose a belief system or way of life without first being immersed in it.

The state’s responsibility for citizenship preparation is interpreted in similar ways. At a minimum, children should be taught respect for law and the skills needed to understand political issues. A more expansive view holds that they should interact with others from different backgrounds, learn to respect their views, and seek common ground in presenting their own. Advocates of this view generally favor restrictions on homeschooling and religious schools, which are unlikely to meet these requirements. Critics point out that most public schools fall short as well. Furthermore, even if this type of education is desirable, critics contend that it is not essential to democratic self-government, and hence does not provide justification for restriction of parental authority.

Advocates of state intervention also contend that parents’ educational choices should be restricted to promote equality of educational opportunity. The plausibility of this argument depends on which view of equal opportunity one holds. What John Rawls calls “formal equality” means that opportunities are open to talent—no one is excluded, for example, because of race or gender. Rawls’s term “fair equality” means that everyone has the same chance of success. The equity argument draws on fair, not formal equality of opportunity. If one holds the latter view, the claim that equity requires restriction of parents’ educational rights is not persuasive.

The issue of parental rights involves two questions: (1) whether parental rights deserve protection under current social institutions; (2) whether and how parents’ rights morally constrain efforts to change current institutions. An interest-based account of rights addresses the first question; a duty-based account is required to answer the second. Answers to both depend on the scope of state responsibility for children’s rights, citizenship training, and educational equity. To ascertain the extent of parents’ rights, a comprehensive account of the responsibilities of the state and the legitimate interests of citizens is required.


  1. Blustein, J. (1982). Parents and children: The ethics of the family. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Burtt, S. (1993). Religious parents, secular schools: A liberal defense of an illiberal education. Review of Politics, 56, 51–71.
  3. Fishkin, J. (1983). Justice, equal opportunity and the family. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  4. Gilles, S. (1996). On educating children: A parentalist manifesto. University of Chicago Law Review, 63(3), 937–1034.
  5. Levinson, M. (1999). The demands of liberal education. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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